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Rumsfeld cuts base-impact estimate

Fears remain about Hanscom, Natick

WASHINGTON -- Far fewer military bases are likely to be closed and realigned than originally foreseen, in part because of the planned shift of tens of thousands of troops from bases in Asia and Europe to the United States, according to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Rumsfeld said surplus base capacity is not as great as earlier estimated, an assessment that is expected to comfort many communities hoping to retain the bases they rely on for an economic boost.

''Without final figures, I would say the percent will be less than half of the 20 to 25 percent that has been characterized previously," Rumsfeld said in a conference call Thursday with newspaper editorial writers across the country, according to two writers who participated in the call.

Rumsfeld had previously said the current round of base closings and realignment, the first since 1995, would result in less shrinkage of base capacity than the 20- to 25-percent figure the Pentagon has cited for the past few years. He now says it might be less than half that range.

Nevertheless, Massachusetts officials bracing to save Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford and the Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick said yesterday that the Pentagon chief's comments do not assuage their fears of closure or downsizing.

The facilities are primarily engaged in cutting-edge research and are not traditional military installations that could easily host fighting units returning from abroad, they said.

''It doesn't have much impact on Hanscom, because they are not going to be moving more troops there," said Cort Boulanger, vice president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council, which is spearheading efforts to inoculate Hanscom and Natick, including the passage last year of a $400 million state plan to expand the Bedford complex.

Council president Christopher Anderson added, ''Our strength will be research capabilities and the ability to expand to attract new missions. That continues to be the primary factor in determining the future of Hanscom and Natick."

Local officials also pressed their case yesterday for other New England bases they fear could be on the chopping block when Rumsfeld makes his recommendations to an independent commission as early as next week.

Governor Mitt Romney, who along with Senator Edward M. Kennedy chairs the council's Defense Technology Initiative, toured Barnes Air National Guard in Westfield and Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee. Romney, who toured the bases with US Representatives John W. Olver and Richard E. Neal, said the state has a plan to lobby the federal government heavily if any Massachusetts bases are marked for closure.

Other bases that could be on forthcoming closure list include Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod, which also houses Air National Guard units; Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, and Brunswick Naval Air Station in Brunswick, Maine.

''With our military deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, as we continue our multifront war on terrorism, and with the potential return to the United States of 70,000 servicemen and women, given the closure of military bases overseas, it simply does not make sense to close our domestic bases," Senator Olympia J. Snowe, Republican of Maine, said in a statement.

Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, said yesterday that in a meeting on Feb. 8, Rumsfeld told him and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison that about 15 percent of base capacity would be cut.

The Pentagon declined to release a transcript of Rumsfeld's remarks to the editorial writers until their editorials have been published. But two of the writers confirmed yesterday that Rumsfeld made the statement that the reduction in base capacity would be less than half the 20 to 25 percent range.

Jill ''JR" Labbe, editorial writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, said she pressed Rumsfeld on this point, noting that his words suggested that only 10 to 12 percent of capacity would be eliminated in this round of base closings. She said Rumsfeld did not dispute her characterization. ''He did not try to back off on that," she said.

Andrea D. Georgsson, editorial writer for the Houston Chronicle, confirmed that Rumsfeld did not object to the 10- to 12-percent estimate, though he did not use those figures in his own comments.

Bryan Bender of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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